Let’s say you’re a female character in a modern thriller or action movie. Unless you’re being played by Gina Carano, what have you got to look forward to? On a bad day, your sole purpose is to be stalked, tortured and sadistically killed. OK, we all agree this is not a terribly meaningful role for a woman, and probably not a very meaningful film either, and if you’re like me, you tend to avoid that sort of movie nowadays anyway, because you’ve seen it all before, many times, and it gets old.
But what of the slightly less reprehensible thriller or action movie, the kind aimed at general audiences that very often, may I remind you, are likely to contain as many female viewers as male ones? On an average day you’ll be the hero’s wife, girlfriend or daughter. On a good day, like Rosamund Pike in Jack Reacher, you’re even allowed to be a lawyer, have daddy issues and maybe a life that doesn’t revolve 100% around the hero, though you will ogle him lustily whenever he takes his shirt off.
Nevertheless, you will still get kidnapped, stolen, taken, held hostage. Maybe, like Rosamund, it will be one and three-quarter hours before this happens, but bank on it, sooner or later it will happen. Because this is the fate of female characters in action movies or thrillers. This is what they’re there for. This is their function.
And here’s a list off the top of my head. Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen in Taken and Taken 2? Blake Lively in Savages? Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight? Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Die Hard 4.0? Annabella Sciorra in The Hard Way? Skye McCole Bartusiak in Don’t Say a Word? Kelly Carlson in The Marine? Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire? Alyssa Milano in Commando? Lucy Liu in Shanghai Noon? Kirstie Alley in Shoot to Kill? Mika Boorem in Along Came a Spider? Kidnapped, every last one of them!
Even in a film such as Hit and Run, where Kristen Bell arguably gets a bit more to do and has slightly better dialogue than your average female character, there will be a scene towards the end of the movie in which the hero looks up to see her – oh no! – sandwiched between menacing heavies. Yep, stupid bitch has gone and got herself kidnapped!
And the kidnaps keep on coming. Bullet to the Head, the new Sylvester Stallone movie? Stolen, the new Nicolas Cage movie? Go ahead – take a look for yourself…
As that list showed, it’s a cliché that has been around for a long time. But I swear that recently it has got worse. Bad enough when it’s the wife or girlfriend (hardly ever mums or grannies – nobody cares about old women) but I’ve got to the stage where my heart sinks when it’s revealed that the hero of the film has a daughter. Because a daughter’s sole function is to get kidnapped. It’s true! Occasionally (in Ransom, for example) it’s a small boy who gets abducted, but as a rule, boys can look after themselves, whereas girls are there for the taking. If you took away films in which they’re kidnapped, small girls wouldn’t even exist in this genre.
Invariably, this is to give the hero incentive to kill some bad guys, to blackmail him into doing something he doesn’t want to do, or into not doing something that he ought to do. The female character, whatever her age, is the carrot. She’s a chattel. She’s cattle. A crime against her is a crime not against her, but against her husband, father, protector – just as Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will relates how the rape of women in legal history was regarded first and foremost as a violation of male property.
I blame the current ubiquity of this daughter-gets-kidnapped trope on Shane Black, poster-boy for the wannabe Hollywood screenwriter. Traci Wolfe gets kidnapped in Lethal Weapon and Danielle Harris gets kidnapped in The Last Boy Scout. Even in The Long Kiss Goodnight, which subverts action movie clichés just enough to have a female lead rather than a male one, Geena Davis has a small daughter whose function is, yes, you’ve guessed it, to get kidnapped by the bad guys in the final reel. That Shane Black, he’s a one-man daughter-kidnapping machine!
I realise there are plots that actively demand the kidnapping of a female character (The Searchers, The Collector, Cellular) and I’m not against it happening in principle. But lately it has devolved into a lazy, sloppy narrative shortcut that novelists, screenwriters and film-makers use without even thinking – it saves them the bother of having to work on their storytelling and find other, more dramatically interesting motivation for the hero. It’s as though their heads are still stuck in the era when the heroine kept getting tied to the railway track with the train bearing down on her. Will the hero defeat the moustache-twirling villain and rescue her in time?
So how about it, film-makers? Would it kill you to ring the changes a little? How about a story in which a small daughter kidnaps the bad guy, just for a change? Or in which the hero gets kidnapped and is saved by his small daughter? Or maybe just a story in which the female characters are more than just passive bargaining chips? In which they aren’t just something that belongs to the hero, but fully rounded characters who have better things to do than get kidnapped? Or if that’s too difficult for you, hell, why not do away with women in the action genre altogether? For heaven’s sake, it would be a darn sight less insulting to my gender.
Stills taken from (from top to bottom): Taken 2, Savages, Commando, Lethal Weapon, The Marine, Bullet to the Head.
ETA: I returned to the topic of women getting kidnapped in action movies, almost one year later, in a piece I wrote for the Telegraph.
It’s not giving much away to say that Penélope Cruz gets kidnapped in The Counsellor. Not only is it obvious from the trailer, which shows her being manhandled, but it’s clear from Michael Fassbender murmuring inane endearments to her in the first few minutes of the film that this will be the character’s chief function. She has no personality or meaning beyond it – her entire raison d’être is boiled down to being a gaming chip, whose abduction will hurt the man who loves her. It will presumably hurt her as well, but we’re not supposed to worry about that.
But even if you didn’t pick up on these clues, it would not be hard to guess that a kidnapping is in the offing – because this is what happens to female characters in action movies and thrillers. The hero has a wife or girlfriend or daughter? The hero cop has a female partner? There’s a female lawyer or reporter? Her function is to get kidnapped, held hostage, tied up or dangled as bait. Not all female characters get kidnapped, I grant you. But most of them do.
To read on, please click on the picture of Penélope Cruz being menaced (below) to be taken to the Telegraph website.